For a non-native, San Francisco looms large in Patrick Wolf's world. A two-day tryst at the Phoenix Motel during Wolf's Magic Position tour laid the foundation for his song "The Future." But it was a recent October show at the Great American Music Hall that drew him back to the City by the Bay for three weeks this January to hunker down in a Hayes Valley Victorian and write material for his next album.
"I was given, like, eight standing ovations. It was mental," the London-born Wolf says, his six-foot-four-inch frame resting at one end of an enveloping red couch. "When a city shows me so much love, I forever have a great adoration for that city. In some way I'm connecting, and I need to go and explore why."
And explore he has: Wolf spent much of his time here haunting bookshops, chatting with locals and quietly writing. He began reading the poetry of San Francisco's Beats, particularly Lawrence Ferlinghetti's A Coney Island of the Mind, and reflecting on the city's potential to let artists reinvent themselves.
Wolf's Great American gig came in support another kind of reinvention: his 2012 double album, Sundark and Riverlight, featuring acoustic remakes of songs from Wolf's first 10 years as a recording artist. Given that the eclectic folk-electronica artist released his debut, Lycanthropy, at 20, Sundark reads as a kind of biography, tracing his growth from young London street punk to contented "housewife" (his word) to his partner, William, in recent songs.
"After Sundark and Riverlight, I realized a lot of my work is kind of naïve and confessional, whereas I'm actually quite jaded sometimes," he says. "I'm searching for a new type of writing. I don't want to repeat anything I've done before. I only want to make music again if it feels new to me."
To that end, Wolf spent many of his San Francisco nights dolled up in various disguises and pseudonyms, visiting late-night parties and other events, mostly as a voyeur. He undertook such secret missions in order to gather writing material, he says.
Trying on different identities is nothing new for Wolf. With Lycanthropy, he emerged as a platinum-haired urchin dressed in thrift-store rags. With later albums he channeled emo, a glitter-frosted David Bowie, a man-sized Raggedy Andy with a bird's nest of red hair, and an Abercrombie & Fitch model in his video for "The City," off 2011's Lupercalia. Wolf has modeled professionally, lending his striking looks to Burberry in 2007 during a period he calls one of his most self-destructive and "anorexic." It's an experience he's not eager to repeat, he says.
Despite all the wardrobe changes, Wolf's music has remained remarkably consistent, melding his resonant voice and skills on the ukulele, harp, viola, and piano with a passion for electronic noises. Many of his songs describe romances in the process of unraveling. But beneath those tales is a constant search for self, fed by the polar themes of incessant travel and a craving for home. One of his earliest songs, "Railway House," and the recent "House," both of which Wolf performed during a living-room concert the night before he flew back to England, reflect the bliss of putting down roots.
As though playing so many roles isn't enough, Wolf surrounds himself with characters. Standing between a piano and harmonium in the ornate living room of the Victorian where he's living, Wolf rehearses the soaring "Together" with Sparkles, a pink-haired soprano, as he strums a four-string tenor guitar. Calpernia Addams -- the trans bombshell who befriended Wolf years ago and helped him find this San Francisco home-away-from-home -- is wandering the rooms, quietly noodling on her violin. House owner Mike Finn, in a housecoat, knit cap and slippers, discreetly chaperones his small dogs around.
The house itself has become a kind of character in Wolf's San Francisco story, down to the vibrating glass chandelier in his bedroom, which made him wonder if he was experiencing his first earthquake.
"I have a fascination with natural disasters, and San Francisco feels like an island of natural disasters waiting to happen," he says. "It creates an aggressiveness for wanting to live."
Wolf says he wishes he could remain in San Francisco a while longer, rather than return to Europe to resume his Sundark and Riverlight tour. And almost in the same breath as he speaks of his passion for life and adventure, he talks about feeling ready to die. Sort of.
"I've done 10 years and five records, experienced a period of celebrity and a period of obscurity. I could easily get in that bed and OD and feel like the work I've done is enough," Wolf says. "When I talk about suicide, I mean I committed suicide by making Sundark and Riverlight. That's the dramatic side of me talking. But the artist knows there's 80 years to go. There's something more fantastic on the way."